Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum will hold the “Lineage of Eccentrics” exhibition from February 9 through April 7, 2019. The exhibition will feature works by eight artists: those by the six “eccentrics” who comprise the subject of art historian Nobuo Tsuji’s book “Lineage of Eccentrics”(Ito Jakuchu, Soga Shohaku, Iwasa Matabei, Kano Sansetsu, Nagasawa Rosetsu and Utagawa Kuniyoshi), as well as those by Hakuin Ekaku and Suzuki Kiitsu. All of the paintings on exhibit are highly original and live up to their eccentric and fantastical billing. They include pieces that the visitor cannot help but be overwhelmed by, in terms of bizarre composition that ignores accepted practices, and brushwork that exceeds the powers of imagination.
When you look at works by featured artists like Jakuchu, Shohaku and Rosetsu, you realize that Japan had a pedigree of surprisingly bold and innovative ideas that broke through the mold of tradition and convention. When I was in discussion recently with Japanese art historian and Meiji Gakuin University professor Yuji Yamashita, he suggested that the essence of what we think of as Japanese originality can be found in the innovative expression of Edo-era painting, the “lineage of eccentrics.” I fully agree with that view.
In Japan today, there are those – and plenty of them – who pessimistically say that the Japanese are lacking in the ability to be innovative and original; that this is why Japan does not have a robust start-up culture like Silicon Valley; and that therefore there is no hope for Japan. However, when you look at works by the artists featured in the “Lineage of Eccentrics” exhibition, I think it blows out of the water views like the Japanese not having any originality. At the risk of sounding rude, it seems to me that people who say the Japanese have no originality do not know the depth, delicacy and richness of Japanese culture. For a firsthand experience of just how great an originality lies within the Japanese, I would like the pessimists to go see this exhibition.
Furthermore, for some time I have believed that Japan’s corporate competitiveness has its source in the aesthetic sense encompassed within Japanese culture. For example, the quality of Japanese cars is well-established and acknowledged globally; and if we look closely at the approach to the delicate craftsmanship involved, it is clearly aided by some sort of Japanese aesthetic sense. In that sense I cannot help wishing that corporate managers would show more interest in Japanese culture.
So is contemporary Japanese arts and culture protected? Will it be all right even if local government stands back and watches without giving any support whatsoever?
The answer is no. I think the proper support for art is essential, and I think there are three points to consider regarding art support.
The first is that original talent itself is to a considerable degree something you are born with. And if that is the case, it is useless to support naturally mediocre artists. This means that when supporting the arts, we need expert opinion able to discern talent.
The second point is that without a stable foundation, even the most naturally innovative artist will not demonstrate their abilities to the full. Many of the “eccentric” painters noted above had surprisingly stable situations behind them. In other words, a greater degree of committed support is feasible for projects that come with a stable foundation.
Thirdly, tradition is necessary for innovation. This has some overlap with the point that projects do not succeed without a solid foundation, but because innovation ultimately means innovation from tradition, I just want to say that there isn’t any innovation without tradition. There are countless examples, but what we can construe from the works of the painters who appear in the “Lineage of Eccentrics” exhibition is that it was tradition itself that allowed them to produce such original works. For example, Suzuki Kiitsu was thoroughly immersed in the Rinpa school of Japanese painting as a student of the famous painter Sakai Hoitsu, but is now known for the astounding works that later overturned the conventions of the Rinpa school.
The support of the arts requires the considerations of expert opinion, foundation and tradition.